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Jack Holloway set the skimmer to HOVER HOVER, swiveled his seat around, and looked at Carl. He shook his head sadly.
"I can't believe we have to go through this again," Holloway said. "It's not that I don't value you as part of this team, Carl. I do. Really, I do. But I can't help but think that in some way, I'm just not getting through to you. We've gone over this how many times now? A dozen? Two? And yet every time we come out here, it's like you forget everything you've been taught. It's really very discouraging. Tell me you get what I'm saying to you."
Carl stared up at Holloway and barked. He was a dog.
"Fine," Holloway said. "Then maybe this this time it will stick." He reached down into a storage bin and hoisted a mound of putty in one hand. "This is acoustical blasting putty. What do we do with it?" time it will stick." He reached down into a storage bin and hoisted a mound of putty in one hand. "This is acoustical blasting putty. What do we do with it?"
Carl c.o.c.ked his head.
"Come on, Carl," Holloway said. "This is the first thing I taught you. We put it on the side of the cliff at strategic points," Holloway said. "Just like I already did earlier today. You remember. You were there." He pointed in the direction of Carl's Cliff, a ma.s.sive outcropping of rock, two hundred meters high, with geological striations peeking out of the vegetation covering most of the rock face. Carl followed Holloway's finger with his eyes, more interested in the finger than in the cliff his master had named for him.
Holloway set down the putty and picked up another, smaller object. "And this is the remote-controlled blasting cap," he said. "Which we attach to the acoustical blasting putty, so we don't have to be near the acoustical blasting putty when we set it off. Because that's boom boom. How do we feel about boom, boom, Carl?" Carl?"
Carl got a concerned look on his doggy face. Boom Boom was a word he knew. Carl was not fond of was a word he knew. Carl was not fond of boom boom.
"Right," Holloway said. He set down the blasting cap, making sure it was nowhere near the blasting putty, and that the cap receiver was inactive. He picked up a third object.
"And this is the remote detonator," Holloway said. "You remember this, this, right, Carl?" right, Carl?"
"What's that, Carl?" Holloway said. "You want to set off the acoustical blasting putty?" want to set off the acoustical blasting putty?"
Carl barked again.
"I don't know," Holloway said, doubtfully. "Technically it is a violation of Zarathustra Corporation safe labor practices to allow a nonsentient species member to set off high explosives."
Carl came up to Holloway and licked his face with a whine that said please please oh please please please oh please.
"Oh, all right," Holloway said, fending off the dog. "But this is the last last time. At least until you grasp time. At least until you grasp all all the fundamentals of the job. No more slacking off and leaving all the hard work to me. I'm paid to supervise. Are we clear?" the fundamentals of the job. No more slacking off and leaving all the hard work to me. I'm paid to supervise. Are we clear?"
Carl barked once more and then backed off, tail wagging. He knew what was coming next.
Holloway glanced down at the detonator's image panel and checked, for the third time since he placed the charges earlier in the day, that the detonator was keyed specifically to the blasting caps placed into the charges. He pressed the panel to answer YES YES to each of the automated safety questions and waited while the detonator confirmed by geolocation that it was, in fact, safely outside the blast radius of any charges. This could be overridden, but it took some hacking, and anyway, Holloway preferred not to blow himself up whenever possible. And Carl was not so fond of to each of the automated safety questions and waited while the detonator confirmed by geolocation that it was, in fact, safely outside the blast radius of any charges. This could be overridden, but it took some hacking, and anyway, Holloway preferred not to blow himself up whenever possible. And Carl was not so fond of boom boom.
CHARGES SET AND READY, read the detonator panel. read the detonator panel. PRESS PANEL TO DETONATE. PRESS PANEL TO DETONATE.
"Okay," Holloway said, and set the detonator on the skimmer floor between him and Carl. Carl looked up expectantly.
"Wait for it," Holloway said, and swiveled around in his chair to face the cliff. He could hear Carl's tail thumping excitedly against a crate.
"Wait for it," Holloway said again, and tried to spy the places on the cliff he had drilled into earlier in the day, using the skimmer as a platform while he inserted and secured the charges into the drill holes. Holloway said again, and tried to spy the places on the cliff he had drilled into earlier in the day, using the skimmer as a platform while he inserted and secured the charges into the drill holes.
Carl gave a little whine.
"Fire!" Holloway said, and heard the dog scramble forward.
The cliff puffed out in four spots, spewing rock and dirt and hurling vegetation for meters. The cliff face darkened as the birds (which is to say, the local flying animal equivalent to birds) that had been nesting in the cliff face's vegetation took to the air, alarmed by the noise and sudden eruptions. A few seconds later, four closely s.p.a.ced cracks cracks snapped the air in the skimmer's open c.o.c.kpit, the sound of the explosions finally reaching Holloway and Carl-loud, but without the Carl-worrying snapped the air in the skimmer's open c.o.c.kpit, the sound of the explosions finally reaching Holloway and Carl-loud, but without the Carl-worrying boom boom.
Holloway glanced over to his right, where his information panel lay, sonic imaging program up and running. The sonic probes he'd placed on and around the cliff were spewing their raw feed into the program, which was collating and combining the data, turning it into a three-dimensional representation of the internal structure of the cliff.
"All right," he said, and swiveled around to look at Carl, who still had his paw on the detonator, tongue lolling out of his mouth.
"Good boy!" Holloway said, and dug into the storage bin to pull out a zararaptor bone, still heavy with meat. He unwrapped it from its storage film and tossed it at Carl, who fell on it happily. That was the deal: Press the detonator, get a bone. It had taken Holloway more than a few tries to get Carl to press the detonator accurately, but it had been worth the effort. Carl had to come on the surveying trips anyway. Might as well have him be useful, or at least entertaining.
Now, it really was was a violation of Zarathustra Corporation safe labor practices to let a dog blow things up. But Holloway and Carl worked alone, hundreds of kilometers from ZaraCorp's local headquarters on-planet and 178 light-years from its corporate headquarters on Earth. He wasn't technically a ZaraCorp employee anyway; he was a contractor, just like every other prospector/surveyor here on Zara XXIII. It was cheaper that way. a violation of Zarathustra Corporation safe labor practices to let a dog blow things up. But Holloway and Carl worked alone, hundreds of kilometers from ZaraCorp's local headquarters on-planet and 178 light-years from its corporate headquarters on Earth. He wasn't technically a ZaraCorp employee anyway; he was a contractor, just like every other prospector/surveyor here on Zara XXIII. It was cheaper that way.
Holloway reached down and rubbed Carl's head affectionately. Carl, engrossed in the raptor bone, paid him not the slightest bit of mind.
An urgent beep came from Holloway's infopanel. He picked it up to see that the data feeds were suddenly spiking through their bandwidth.
A low rumble thrummed its way into the skimmer c.o.c.kpit, getting louder the longer it lasted. Carl looked up from his bone and whined. This noise was perilously close to boom boom.
Holloway glanced up and saw a column of dust rising violently from the cliff wall, obscuring everything behind it.
"Oh, c.r.a.p," he said to himself. He had a very bad, sinking feeling about this.
After a few minutes, the dust began to clear a bit, and his very bad, sinking feeling got worse. Through the indistinct haze, Holloway could see that a portion of the cliff wall had collapsed, the borders of the collapse roughly contiguous with where he had placed his explosive charges. Stark geological striations glared out from where vegetation had been before. Birds swooped into the area, looking for their nests, the remains of which were a couple hundred meters below them, the wreckage muddying and rerouting the river at the foot of the cliff.
"Oh, c.r.a.p," Holloway said again, and reached for his binoculars.
ZaraCorp would be awfully p.i.s.sed he'd just caused a cliff collapse. ZaraCorp had been working hard over the last few years to reverse the long-standing public image the company had as a rampant despoiler of nature-earned, to be sure, by actually despoiling nature on a number of planets it had operations on. The public was no longer buying the argument that uninhabited planets had higher ecological tolerances than inhabited ones, or that these ecosystems would quickly restore natural equilibriums once ZaraCorp had moved on. As far as they were concerned, strip-mining was strip-mining, regardless of whether you were doing it in the mountains of Pennsylvania or the hills of Zara XXIII.
Confronted with overwhelming public opposition to his company's ecological practices (or lack thereof), Wheaton Aubrey VI, Chairman and CEO of Zarathustra Corporation, said "fine" and ordered ZaraCorp and all its subsidiaries to exercise practices consistent with ecological guidelines suggested by the Colonial Environmental Protection Agency. It was all the same to Aubrey. He was no friend to the various ecologies of the planets his company was on, but ZaraCorp's Exploration & Exploitation charter with the Colonial Administration specified that the company would receive tax credits when conforming to CEPA guidelines, so long as the incurred business costs were above a meager cost-of-development baseline formulated decades before anyone cared about the ecological despoilage of worlds they would never actually set foot on.
ZaraCorp's ostentatious new regime of ecological best practices, in other words, helped drive the company's tax indebtedness to something close to zero, a neat trick for an organization whose size and income were a nontrivial fraction of that of the Colonial Administration itself.
But it also meant that events that tarnished ZaraCorp's new eco-friendly PR campaign were looked at rather harshly. For example, collapsing an entire cliff wall. The whole point of using acoustic charges was to minimize the invasiveness of geologic exploration. Holloway didn't intend to make half the cliff fall away, but given ZaraCorp's reputation, the company would have a hard time getting anyone to believe that. Holloway had played fast and loose with regulations before and had mostly gotten away with it, but this was just the sort of thing that would, would, in fact, get Holloway booted off the planet. in fact, get Holloway booted off the planet.
"Come on, come on, on," Holloway said, still peering through his binoculars. He was waiting for the haze to settle enough to make out details.
The communication circuit on Holloway's infopanel fired up, showing the ID of Chad Bourne, Holloway's ZaraCorp contractor rep. Holloway swore and slapped the AUDIO ONLY AUDIO ONLY option. option.
"Hi, Chad," he said, and put the binoculars back to his eyes.
"Jack, the geeks in the data room tell me there's something really screwy with your feeds," Bourne said. "They say everything was coming in clear and then it was like someone turned the feeds up to eleven." Chad Bourne's voice came in crystal clear and enveloping, thanks to the skimmer's one true indulgence: a spectacular sound system. Holloway had it installed when he realized he'd be spending almost all his working life in the skimmer. It was a wonder in many ways, but it didn't make Bourne sound any less adenoidal.
"Huh," Holloway said.
"They say it's the sort of thing you see when there's an earthquake. Or a maybe a rock slide," Bourne said.
"Now that you mention it, I think I felt an earthquake," Holloway said.
"Really," Bourne said.
"Yes," Holloway said. "Just before it happened, Carl was acting all strange. They say animals are always the first to know about these things."
"So the fact that the data geeks just told me there was absolutely no seismic event of any magnitude in your part of the continent doesn't bother you any," Bourne said.
"Who are you going to believe," Holloway said. "I'm here. They're there."
"They're here with roughly twenty-five million credits' worth of equipment," Bourne said. "You've got an infopanel and a history of bad surveying practices."
"Alleged bad surveying practices," Holloway said. bad surveying practices," Holloway said.
"Jack, you let your dog blow s.h.i.+t up," Bourne said.
"I do not," Holloway said. The dust at the cliff wall had finally begun to clear. "That's just a rumor."
"We have an eyewitness," Bourne said.
"She's unreliable," Holloway said.
"She's a trusted employee," Bourne said. "Unlike some people I could name."
"She had a personal agenda," Holloway said. "Trust me."
"Well, that's just the thing, isn't it, Jack?" Bourne said. "You have to earn that trust. And right now, you've got not so much of it with me. But I'll tell you what. I have a surveying satellite that's coming up over the horizon in about six minutes. When it gets there, I'm going to have it look at that cliff wall you probably just blew up. If it looks like it's supposed to, then the next time you get into Aubreytown, I'll buy you a steak at Ruby's and apologize. But if it looks like I know it's going to look like, I'm going to revoke your contract and send some security agents to bring you in. And not the ones you go drinking with, Jack. The ones who don't don't like you. I know, I'll send Joe DeLise. He'll be delighted to see you." like you. I know, I'll send Joe DeLise. He'll be delighted to see you."
"Good luck getting him off his barstool," Holloway said.
"For you, I think he'd do it," Bourne said. "What do you think about that?"
Holloway didn't respond. He'd stopped listening several seconds earlier, because in his binoculars was a thin stratum of rock, sandwiched between two much larger striations. The stratum he was focused on was dark as coal.
"Yes," Holloway said. Holloway said.
"Yes, what?" Bourne said. "Jack, are you even listening to what I'm telling you?"
"Sorry, Chad, you're breaking up," Holloway said. "Interference. Sunspots."
"Jesus, Jack, you're not even trying trying anymore," Bourne said. "Enjoy your next five minutes. I've already called up your contract on my infopanel. As soon as I get that satellite image, I'm pressing the delete b.u.t.ton." Bourne broke contact. anymore," Bourne said. "Enjoy your next five minutes. I've already called up your contract on my infopanel. As soon as I get that satellite image, I'm pressing the delete b.u.t.ton." Bourne broke contact.
Holloway looked over at Carl and picked up the detonator panel. "Crate," he said to the dog. Carl barked, picked up his bone, and headed for his crate, which would immobilize him in case of a skimmer crash. Holloway dropped the detonator into the storage bin, secured his infopanel, and strapped himself into his chair.
"Come on, Carl," he said, and goosed the skimmer forward. "We've got five minutes to keep ourselves from getting kicked off the planet."
Five minutes thirty seconds later Holloway slapped open the communication circuit on his infopanel, sound only. "I suppose you're going to tell me my contract is deleted," he said to Bourne.
"It is so very deleted," Bourne said. "And I'm keying in the security retrieval order right now. Just stay where you are and someone will be along to pick you up in about an hour. They'll take you directly to the beanstalk. Pack light."
"No chance I can convince you otherwise," Holloway said.
"No way," Bourne said. "I've got six dozen contractors I supervise, Jack. Six dozen. Not one of them is as much of a pain in my a.s.s as you are. I'm about to make my life that much easier."
"You're sure your satellite image is showing you what you need to see?" Holloway asked.
"The satellite takes images at a centimeter resolution, Jack," Bourne said. "Live images. I am at this very moment staring at the cliff wall you just blew up, and seeing you and your dog sitting on a ledge that up until a few moments ago was inside inside the cliff. Say h.e.l.lo to Carl for me." the cliff. Say h.e.l.lo to Carl for me."
Holloway turned to Carl. "Chad says h.e.l.lo." Carl blinked and lay down to rest.
"Carl's a nice dog," Bourne said. "Too bad he's yours."
"That's been noted before," Holloway said. "Chad, if the satellite can resolve to a centimeter, you should look at my hand."
"You're giving me the middle finger," Bourne said, after a second. "Nice. Have you always been twelve years old, or is this new?"
"Glad you noticed, but not that hand," Holloway said. "The other hand."
There was a moment's pause. Then, "Bulls.h.i.+t," said Bourne.
"No," Holloway said. "Sunstone."
"Bulls.h.i.+t!" Bourne said again.
"Big one, too," Holloway said. "This one's the size of the proverbial baby's fist. And there are three more just this big here on this ledge with me. I pulled them out of the seam like they were apples off a tree. This was the original jellyfish burial ground, my friend."
"Infopanel," Bourne said. "High-resolution imager. Now."
Holloway smiled and reached for his infopanel.
Zara XXIII was in most respects an unremarkable Cla.s.s III planet: roughly Earth sized, roughly Earth ma.s.s, winging around its star in the "Goldilocks zone" that made liquid water possible and life therefore an inevitability. It lacked native sentient life, but most Cla.s.s III planets did, otherwise they'd be Cla.s.s IIIa and ZaraCorp's E & E charter would be void, the planet and its resources held in trust for the thinking creatures who lived on it. Because Zara XXIII lacked creatures with forebrains (or the forebrain equivalent), however, ZaraCorp was free to explore and exploit it, mining the metals and plunging depths for the petroleum that humans had long ago exhausted on their own world.
But for all that Zara XXIII was mostly unremarkable, it stood out from all the other ZaraCorp planets in one way: 100 million years previously, its oceans were dominated by an immense jellyfish-like creature that survived on algae and diatoms that themselves fed on the unusually mineral-rich waters of Zara XXIII's seas. When these jellyfish died, their fragile corpses sank downward into the oxygen-starved depths, covering the ocean floors in places for kilometers. These corpses were eventually covered in silt and mud, and in the course of time, weight and pressure compressed and transformed the jellyfish into something else.